“I’m going to be studying in Seoul, Korea next semester.”
“Wait, North Korea? Please tell me you’re not moving to North Korea!”
“No, no, Seoul is in South Korea.”
“Oh good, for a second I thought you were moving to North Korea!”
In the months before my move abroad, I had multiple versions of this conversation with an array of people. If this had happened once or twice, I wouldn’t have thought about it much. Maybe some people just aren’t aware of current geopolitical conflicts.
But I had this conversation routinely for months. Again and again, people expressed relief that I was moving to South Korea, not North Korea. I began to wonder, are people just uninformed about Korea? Why do so few people know what’s happening in Korea?
Conversations displaying the ignorance around Korea, and immediate concerns of North Korea, seem indicative of a deeper problem than simple lack of awareness of current geography. They demonstrate an oversimplified and immediately disapproving view of Korea so many in the U.S. share.
These conversations reveal a “North Korean Stereotype” — a widespread misperception of North Korea that reduces the country to only the politics of nuclear warheads and dictators while ignoring the culture, daily life, and humanity of over 25 million North Koreans.
Let’s unpack this stereotype.
In the U.S., “Korea” seems to have gained popularity with the Hallyu wave of K-dramas and K-pop. These components, however, are only pop-culture exports of South Korea. These depictions of “Korea” do not adequately represent North Korea — regardless, is familiarity with such components even adequate to understanding South Korean culture?
Even with the Hallyu flood of South Korean culture into the Western world, many people’s ideas of South Korea remain static, incomplete, and unrepresentative. So, how unrepresentative would perceptions be about a country which aggressively restricts all cultural exports and information exchange? A country most people do not actively seek to understand (except maybe from a mixture of fear and fascination)? A country like, say, North Korea?
Understanding culture is a complex, nuanced, and elaborate process. It involves keeping up with popular topics, following relevant politics, making efforts to understand the language, researching ancient and modern history, learning about social customs, tasting normal life for different demographics — the list goes on.
While perfect knowledge of any culture is not possible, we can always develop a more accurate, robust, and comprehensive understanding. Doing so benefits us as individuals and our collective societies because expanding knowledge better informs opinion, action, and empathy.
As passive mass-media consumers, we naturally cultivate an unrepresentative idea of North Korea due to the incomplete media narratives surrounding the country.
U.S. media reports on North Korea have a strong history of sensationalism. Analysts from the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and The Washington Post (to name a few) have all commented on this widespread trend. The narrative of North Korea in popular media has two components: nuclear weapons and dictatorship. There is nothing about the people, culture, or daily life in North Korea.
Granted, stories of North Korean defectors or attempted defectors do reach the media, often the ones of dramatic escape or rescue. However, the infrequency of these stories leaves them as proportionally small in comparison with nuclear weapons and dictatorship.
Arguably though, these media narratives reflect an even more devastating reality: very few people think of North Korea as a country with a culture or a people — and even fewer realize this mistake.
This dehumanizing mentality is pervasive. I know it first hand because I once thought about North Korea the same way. North Korea wasn’t a country to me, not really even a place, just an abstract, unfathomable, and hostile concept. And, while I didn’t intentionally choose to believe this narrative, my failure to reject it led to the same result. In the media, North Korea = nukes + dictator. By diffusion, to me, North Korea = nukes + dictator: this simple equation, this North Korean Stereotype, and nothing more.
Even articles I saw on social media discussing some “new angle,” are only on these topics. Very quickly, the rhetoric becomes repetitive. You understand these, you understand everything mainstream U.S. media has to say about North Korea.
So people immediately shake their heads in disapproval at any mention of “North Korea.” They bristle at the word “dictator” when it prompts images of oppression. And they express disdain like a knee-jerk reaction whenever “nuclear weapons” come up in conversation (ironic, since the U.S. also has nuclear weapons and remains the only country to have ever used them). Yet this reaction seems to be the only socially acceptable response according to our North Korean Stereotype.
Really, this has become the socially acceptable response to most countries that do not embrace U.S. (and generally Western) democratic ideals, like Iran or Russia. These countries make us uncomfortable. Besides, brushing away discomfort is easier than seeking to understand the cause of the discomfort. Maybe this “North Korean Stereotype” is less North Korean and more Western…
Arguably, many people outside the U.S. think or act similarly as international media propagates the same or a similar sensationalized North Korean Stereotype. Consider what major international media says about the politics of North Korea — and how the topics inevitably emphasize nuclear weapons and authoritarian dictators.
International politics surrounds how to “fix the North Korea issue” in relation to another country without discussing how to help an impoverished country or liberate an oppressed people — or even question if these people consider themselves oppressed or if they even want liberation.
Rather, those goals come secondary (if at all) to fixing the problem of unregulated nuclear weapons or reestablishing trade relations. The international community has dehumanized North Korea.
Humanizing North Korea & Breaking the Stereotype
Correcting the incompleteness and unrepresentativeness of the North Korean Stereotype will take intentional effort to first understand North Korea through the information and culture which has already been exported, then to gather more information. This must happen through repeated, individual interactions that recognize, rather than reduce, the complexity of North Korea and the humanity of North Koreans.
In the US, this stereotype mentality has silently infiltrated the culture, as the most robust opinions seem to do. Looking back, I’m ashamed of my own ignorance regarding North Korea. Since when should a country be simplified to nothing more than weapons, a leader, and a Twitter feud?
Recognizing this blindspot is nearly impossible from the inside — that’s why it’s called a blind spot. Only by accidentally distancing myself from mainstream U.S. media while living in Seoul did I recognize my ignorant and incomplete ideas about North Korea. So I began to ask questions:
What are the North Korean people like? And can they really be that different from anyone else?
What is North Korean culture? What kinds of food do they eat? Clothes do they wear? Activities do they do?
What does normal life look like in North Korea? Where do they shop, study, and spend time?
What do teens do when they’re bored? What games do children play? Where do their grandparents sit to chat?
Thankfully, I can’t think of a better place to try and understand North Korea than South Korea – since, of course, the country itself is off-limits.
Throughout South Korea, many organizations and publications have formed to combat this North Korean Stereotype; to answer these questions. From my research, I found a few organizations eager to help people like you and me understand the humanity, complexity, and reality of North Korea:
- NK News — Based in Seoul, NK News remains an independent news source dedicated to producing impartial and informed news about everything North Korea-related.
- 38North — Dedicated to an informed analysis of North Korea, 38North aims to present objective news about North Korea for all audiences, from the most inexperienced to the most seasoned analyst.
- Daily NK — Daily NK focuses on publishing up-to-date North Korean news through a robust network of within-country journalists.
- Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) — LiNK focuses on promoting liberty in and around North Korea. Part of their mission involves changing the narrative around North Korea to emphasize people over politics. Notably, they also help North Korean refugees escape and establish new lives outside the country.
Breaking the perpetuating cycle of the North Korea Stereotype starts with individuals informing themselves and the people around them — people willing to question their stereotypes about North Korea and to embrace the messy, complex, beautiful, and inspiring humanity behind the Stereotype.
So let’s do just that. Where to start? Click one of the links above, spend two, three, or even five minutes reading a little bit more about North Korea. Read about it as a place. A people.
Of course, diving headlong into these websites may seem intimidating and/or time-consuming. Maybe a more appropriate starting point is for us to answer this question:
So, what is North Korea actually like?
I’m glad you asked. Like every other country and culture, unpacking the nuances of North Korea can (and does) fill countless articles, documentaries, and books. To begin, let me share the top facts about North Korea that sparked this whole exploration and started to break my North Korean Stereotype:
- North Korea has markets. Everyday markets, referred to as Jangmadang markets. Isn’t that mundane? Normal? Underwhelming? Exactly. That’s why it shocked me when I learned it.
- Pyongyang, the capital, has high-end department stores with all the normal, high-priced department store items. New department stores even sell some Western brands.
- Street food is also very popular in North Korea. Soybean sausages and tofu rice emerge as some of the most common, regional specialties really.
- K-dramas aren’t just a South Korean thing. North Korea has its own dramas. Yes, they’re state-written, state-produced, and often quite bland since the dramas are used as another propaganda tool. Regardless, they exist. You can even watch a live stream of the North Korean television broadcast.
- Recently, younger generations have had increased exposure to international music and dramas through smuggled CDs, DVDs, and USBs. This exposure has encouraged motivations to defect.
But what about the political concentration camps? The blatant human rights violations? The malnutrition? The oppression? The restriction of expression in speech, clothing, and thought? Why didn’t you mention any of those topics?
Our discussion here is chiefly concerned with humanizing the North Korean people. Yes, all of those negative issues exist and we must recognize them. Few words capture the depth of suffering that the North Korean people have endured — and even fewer words capture the resilience of the people in the face of this suffering. Understanding the people of North Korea is fundamental to understanding their suffering and their resilience and their hopeful future. If anything, seeing the humanity of the people of North Korea heightens the importance of the issues they face under the current regime.
To explain North Korean life, culture, and society more extensively, I must defer to the experts: North Koreans and reliable organizations, who often work in partnership.
To learn more from these experts, choose a medium and begin exploring these curated links. Imagine this as a digital choose-your-own-adventure quest. The exploration will be well worth your time.
Videos (for the win)
- The People’s History — Put together by Liberty in North Korea, this provides an insightful overview of Korean history, focusing on North Korea following the peninsula’s divide. Runtime: 4 minutes
- Crash Landing On You — This is actually an entire K-drama set in North Korea. Yes, the story is fictional, but the production team took extensive efforts to make the show accurate and authentic by consulting North Korea defectors. Their efforts do an incredible job humanizing North Korea for many people. (The full series is available on Netflix)
Articles (yes please!)
- A Changing North Korea — Broken down by topics and informed by North Koreans, this article outlines the current changes: grassroots movements, increased connection with the outside world, and the role of foreign social media.
- Joy’s Story — See the escape from North Korea through Joy’s experience, particularly Part 2 of her story describing her time in China where she, like many other female refugees, was sold into human trafficking.
- Find more refugee stories on the LINK blog.
- ‘Beauty is freedom’ — This piece from CNN explores how beauty, makeup, and fashion are being used by millennials to protest state oppression.
Social Media (Instagram, Twitter, &/or Facebook, ofc)
- @everdayDPRK — This account does an incredible job showing photos from inside North Korea. Find them on Instagram or Facebook.
- @siegfried_chu — Chu is a Chinese photojournalist who has lived in Pyongyang for over two years now. He uses Instagram to share snapshots of life inside North Korea.
- @Krahun — A mixture of a tour company and volunteer experience, this account by Krahun Co. gives a deeper look into rural farm life. Find them on Instagram.
- @newsjean — Jean H. Lee, a long-time journalist and reporter on North Korea, keeps her feed filled with high-quality updates on the country and surrounding news. See her on Twitter.
- @adamcathcart — Adam Cathcart is a lecturer, scholar, and editor. He proved up to date coverage on North Korean news. Take a look on Twitter.
Before you go…
As you ponder this topic and explore further, I ask one small thing: talk to the people around you about this topic. Find something interesting? Share the link with them. Have a moment of revelation? Tell someone over a video call or in a text message.
Open this topic for discussion — and keep it open.